BLM plan update is not cause for leasing delay

Today was to be the deadline for public comment on the Bureau of Land Management’s consideration of roughly 30,000 acres in the North Fork Valley for oil and gas leasing. But that deadline has been extended once more. Now the deadline is April 20.

Even so, we offer our thoughts today on the leasing proposals. And they can be succinctly stated this way: Those who have proposed 22 parcels for leasing in the North Fork Valley relied on the BLM regulations as they currently exist. Leasing shouldn’t be indefinitely postponed because the BLM’s Uncompahgre Field Office is in the process of updating those regulations.

Opponents of the leasing argue that those rules were adopted in the BLM’s resource management plan that is now 23 years old. That plan, although it allows oil and gas leasing, did not contemplate current technology such as fracking and directional drilling, they say. Nor did it adequately deal with problems such as drilling on steep slopes or requiring no surface occupancy in especially sensitive areas.

Because the Uncompahgre resource management plan is in the process of being updated, opponents argue, any leasing for oil and gas drilling should be postponed until the new plan is completed.

It’s a potent argument, and it’s made by groups and individuals who are earnestly trying to protect their largely rural lifestyle in the North Fork Valley.

But there is a counter-argument that has even more merit, we believe. It is that there must be consistency and predictability in the rules for using public lands — not just for the energy industry, but for all users, including farmers, ranchers and recreationists.

Imagine if the BLM said, “We are temporarily halting all recreation on these lands until we update our resource management plan because we are considering changes in our recreation rules. The previous plan didn’t contemplate the changes in technology and usage that have occurred with things like mountain bikes and off-road vehicles and camping equipment over the past 23 years. We don’t know exactly what the new rules will look like, but we don’t want inappropriate recreation occurring under the current rules.”

The public and various recreation groups would be rightly outraged if the BLM did that.

Oil and gas companies have just as much right to expect the rules currently on the books to be the ones they must comply with for leasing.

Furthermore, revising a BLM resource management plan is an open-ended undertaking. While there may be a nominal deadline for completing one, delays are common due to administrative appeals, legal challenges and changes in direction from Washington, D.C.

Additionally, some opponents of the current leasing plan for the North Fork have made no secret of the fact that their ultimate goal is to prevent drilling entirely in their neighborhood. If the BLM were to postpone the leasing until the completion of the resource management plan update, opponents would have every incentive to challenge and delay the plan, and little reason to see it completed.

It is true, as opponents have pointed out, that the BLM has delayed leasing in a handful of places in the West while updating a resource management plan.

It’s also true, as energy representatives note, that the BLM is not required to postpone actions while plans are being updated. In fact, both the BLM’s handbook and federal court cases say the BLM does not have to defer leasing while a plan is updated, and existing management rules are the ones that should be followed during a plan update.

There are real environmental issues that must be dealt with if drilling proceeds in the North Fork Valley. But they can be addressed when companies file formal drilling plans for lands they’ve leased. And, in addressing those issues, the BLM needs to require the most up-to-date technology to protect the environment. It is not mandated to use only 1989 remedies.

In the meantime, energy companies’ leasing plans shouldn’t be put on hold for who-knows-how-long while they await the completion of the resource management plan update.


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